Centralization in UN Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 302-303:

Although Afghanistan’s regions had become autonomous during the Afghan civil war, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United States both pushed to reestablish a highly centralized government of the type that had failed repeatedly in the past. Abdur Rahman created the first centralized Afghan state in the late nineteenth century only after many bloody military campaigns, but his political goals had been limited to destroying internal rivals, preserving his supremacy, and maintaining order. Later rulers who thought they could use his state model to impose change on the country soon found that it was not up to the task. The reforming King Amanullah was overthrown, and his state collapsed in 1929, requiring two generations to fully restore. Only the Soviet invasion in 1979 preserved the unpopular PDPA regime from a similar collapse after it too found the Afghan state institutions weaker than expected. During the civil war that followed the dissolution of the PDPA in 1992, Afghanistan reverted to its older pattern of regional autonomy that even the Taliban could do little to change. Arriving UNAMA officials saw the lack of a strong centralized state as a symptom of Afghanistan’s problems and moved to restore it. Though written to serve monarchs, the constitutions of 1923 and 1964 were used as templates for the constitution of 2004. This new constitution made the Karzai government responsible for everything from appointing provincial governors to paying local schoolteachers.

The enthusiasm for restoring a highly centralized government was confined to the international community and the Kabul elite that ran it. Many other Afghans saw such governments as the source of Afghanistan’s past problems. Critics contended that decentralization better suited Afghanistan because such governments had so badly neglected the rest of the country. The nondemocratic regimes that had ruled Afghanistan previously saw this as an acceptable price for the greater political control it gave them, particularly by preventing the reemergence of powerful regional elites, which had characterized Afghan politics before 1880. But the impact of twenty-five years of warfare changed this situation. Regions wanted a direct choice in how they were to be governed at the local level. The international community saw assertions of such regional autonomy as signs of disorder that needed to be curbed. They dismissed decentralization proponents as supporters of warlords who would bring the country to ruin. In fact, establishing governmental order and services by region, rather than centrally from Kabul, had considerable merit. It would have proven more effective and given people more of a stake in local administration. In addition there was always the risk that if a highly centralized government faltered, the consequences would be nationwide.

Any prospect of central state failure was dismissed by those who touted Karzai as a sure bet for success after he steered the country through the constitutional process and his own election as president in 2004. Afghans were less sanguine because they saw Karzai in a different light, as a vacillating leader who was unwilling to confront his enemies or discipline his allies.

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Filed under Afghanistan, democracy, nationalism, NGOs, U.N., U.S., war

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